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U.S. steps up charges of Iran interference

Times Staff Writer

A high-ranking U.S. military officer Sunday described new details of allegations that Iran is meddling in Iraq, accusing the Islamic Republic of training Iraqi operatives to direct militants in their homeland.

The latest accusations, made during a news conference here, were part of a renewed drumbeat of U.S. charges over Tehran’s role in Iraq after a period of faint improvement in relations.

Last week, after a visit to Baghdad by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno and Navy Adm. William J. Fallon accused his government of destabilizing Iraq. Iran, meanwhile, alleged that the U.S. had reneged on an agreement to hold a fourth round of joint talks with Iraqi officials about security in Iraq.

Odierno, speaking at the Pentagon, had called Iran the greatest long-term threat to Iraq and accused it of trying to keep the Baghdad government weak for its own benefit. Fallon told the Senate Armed Services Committee that there was evidence that Iran continued to train and equip militants in Iraq.

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On Sunday in Baghdad, Rear Adm. Greg Smith, a spokesman for American forces in Iraq, fleshed out some of the details of those allegations. He said U.S. troops recently discovered a cache of weapons south of Baghdad with markings indicating they had been made recently in Iran. He also alleged that Tehran had been recruiting Iraqis for training in Iran, citing statements by Iraqi detainees.

“Groups and elements” including Iranians and militants attached to Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia are training Iraqis in Iran to act as recruiters and trainers in Iraq, Smith said.

“They’re being trained as trainers to set up the teams inside Iraq,” he said on the sidelines of the news conference.

He said the U.S. gleaned the information from Iraqi detainees who had undergone such training late last year. He did not elaborate, but said that more details would be given in the coming weeks.

“All told the same story,” Smith said of the detainees. “Handlers trained by Hezbollah inside Iran came back here purposefully to support anti-coalition and anti-security elements.”

Security improved markedly in Iraq over the last six months of 2007, in part because of a dramatic decrease in activity by Shiite militias linked to Iran, which considers itself the patron of followers of the Shiite sect of Islam worldwide. But U.S. officials, without disclosing numbers, have told reporters of a slight uptick recently in reports of rocket and sophisticated roadside bomb attacks that they attribute to Iranian-backed militiamen.

Observers say the Tehran government may be training and equipping a clandestine network of operatives in Iraq as a potential card to play against American forces in case Washington decides to attack Iranian nuclear facilities.

The United States and Iran have been locked in a nearly three-decade Cold War. Washington accuses Tehran of supporting Islamic militants across the Middle East and pursuing nuclear weapons under the guise of a civilian energy program.

A U.S. intelligence analysis report last December that concluded that Iran had ended a nuclear weapons program in 2003 undercut Bush administration hawks who might seek to confront Iran militarily. The United Nations Security Council last week approved a third set of sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, measures sought by the U.S. and its allies.

Iraqi officials hope that talks between the U.S. and Iran might ease tensions between Iraq’s greatest strategic partner and its most pervasive neighbor. But the negotiations have faltered because of “technical issues,” said Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki on Sunday, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency.

Smith, responding to a reporter’s question, rejected the characterization of the stalled talks as a dialogue between Washington and Tehran.

“It’s a dialogue between Iran and Iraq which the U.S. has been invited to attend,” he said.

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daragahi@latimes.com


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